Cameron and Detail

John Rentoul

cam 300x226 Cameron and DetailA belated comment on this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, in which Ed Miliband seemed to catch out David Cameron on keeping DNA samples of innocent people.

Cameron tried to talk about Ed Balls instead, but the Speaker cut him off, and then the Prime Minister had a hurried consultation with Theresa May, the Home Secretary, and gave an answer about keeping DNA on computer that made no sense to me.

This was widely reported as another triumph for the Leader of the Opposition, after last week’s on benefits for cancer patients. I was not convinced about either “victory”. Last week’s seemed a particularly shabby bit of shroud-waving, or, rather, taboo-waving. Any mention of cancer seems to give the questioner an advantage.

The other common judgement that seems wrong is that Cameron is not good on detail and that, for the second week running, Miliband had scored a debating win by cunningly asking a question so pettifoggingly obscure that the Prime Minister could not possibly be expected to know the answer. This is supposed to represent an advance to political maturity on the part of the Labour leader.

I do not agree. Cameron can do detail brilliantly. But the question about keeping DNA records was not a detail. It was a big, broad-brush, gut instinct question of principle.

Is it right to keep the DNA of those arrested but not charged with rape?

Civil libertarians such as Shami Chakrabarti, David Davis, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party and (until this week) Ed Miliband would say no, because these people are innocent until proven guilty.

Other people, such as Tony Blair, all Labour home secretaries 1997-2010, Angie Conroy from Rape Crisis, whom Miliband quoted, and most Tory MPs would say yes, because the technology has helped to convict many rapists who would otherwise have gone on to offend again.

Cameron really doesn’t like it because he allowed Davis as shadow home secretary to sign up to The Guardian civil liberties wish list only for the purposes of brand detoxification.

I doubt if he will be discomfited for long, though, because Miliband would have to keep up a New Labour posture on crime, which he will find hard because he doesn’t believe in it.

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  • popskihaynes

    The whole question of whether you should keep or destroy DNA taken from “arrested suspects” that are not then tried, is what I would call a “Guantanamo Bay” problem. By which I mean that by sending ’suspects’ there, the USA Government fully intended to deprive them of the full protection of US Law. The problem is that once someone has been so incarcerated, if they weren’t your enemy before, they certainly will be now and you cannot afford to let them go.

    The weakness lay in the US Military and Government not “thinking through” the whole policy in the first place and in doing so, applying basic “American Principles” to the whole thing.

    There will obviously be arguments both for and against retaining DNA samples but, we really should err on the side of basic principles which in this case, is the presumption of innocence, the samples should be destroyed and it be a criminal offence for them to be retained. One may need to go beyond that to prevent any Government Agency being able to produce trumped up minor charges to provide an excuse to retain DNA and classify offences and circumstances to frustrate any such attempts.

    Yes, if we did this, there will be “tragic cases”, “what about potential terrorists ?” and so on but they are likely to be the exceptions that prove the rule. Society needs to remind itself of what principles we stand on. Is a person innocent until proved guilty or not ? If a majority think that retaining DNA from suspects is OK, then we need to level the playing field, EVERYBODY should have their DNA on file.

  • Nick Palmer

    John is, I believe, factually mistaken – Ed quoted retention of DNA last year as an example of the sort of thing that hardline libertarians object to but are nonetheless worthwhile. He contrasted with a number of other things that Labour government had done or proposed (such as extended detention of terrorist suspects) which he thinks we got wrong.

    IMO John is mistaken on the politics and the issue too. Nobody suggests that if the police strongly suspect X of a crime but don’t have enough evidence to prosecute, they should tear up all their notes: they retain what evidence they have in the hope of getting more conclusive proof, and in case X comes to their attention in another context. What’s special about DNA that this, unlike all other evidence, must be destroyed?

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    Are you using ‘discomfited’ to mean ‘defeated’? (Possible, but not certain in this context.) If so, tick, vg. The use of ‘discomfited’ to mean ‘discomforted’ is another one for the banned list.

  • John Rentoul

    Impressed by the level of the attempted pedantry (compliment) here, but Chambers says “discomfit: 1 to make someone feel embarrassed or uneasy; to perplex them. 2 to frustrate the plans of someone”. Either is good for me. 

  • JohnJustice

    Where the consequences of a crime being repeated are horrendous we should err on the side of caution not libertarian principles in my opinion. What’s so terrible about having a DNA sample taken anyway in these cases. Only criminals or potential criminals have something to fear.

  • popskihaynes

    Your reply makes the mistake of seeing the world as “Us (good people) and Them (bad people)” or, if someone is arrested for anything: “There’s no smoke without fire…” In other words, it is an attitude that is not based upon a presumption of innocence, the fact that someone points a finger and whatever their motive in doing so, condemns a suspect to being deemed guilty for evermore and regardless of whether they were charged or not.

    I have known two people who had your view until they were interrogated by the police, in both cases because of mistaken identity which was not resolved for some time. One had volunteered to help the Police with an identity parade, he was just a passer by who was similar looking to a suspect. To his horror, it involved child molestation and he was picked out…his DNA would certainly have been taken but he was an innocent person as was later shown conclusively, should his DNA be kept on record ?

    As I pointed out earlier, there are only two choices with DNA, either destroy it when a person is not charged with any criminal offence OR every UK citizen gives a sample of their DNA. In fact it is likely that for medical reasons and because we are just at the start of this kind of science DNA being but the tip of the iceberg, the latter is likely to become the ’standard’ in due course and the context that “DNA = Crime” will change as well.

  • porkfright

    I could have predicted that you would come out with this 1984-er, Mr. Doomstice.

  • JohnJustice

    In the example you give your friend would not have had to go through such a long process had DNA been discovered at the scene of the crime since he would have been eliminated immediately if he had been on a DNA data list.

  • popskihaynes

    Sorry but you seem to be a very confused person: “… he would have been eliminated immediately if he had been on a DNA data list.”

    Okay, let us decide where this “List” comes from.

    My friend had never been in trouble with the Police so what “list” would his DNA be on ?

    So once again, the choice is simple: Either DNA evidence is destroyed if no charge is made OR, everyone gives a sample of their DNA to be held on file. Now obviously you would agree to giving yours because “You have nothing to hide…and are Not of the Criminal Classes”.

    You are not a very bright boy, are you ?

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